What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity

Integrity is the foundation of our lives and what strengthens it or weakens it can have a significant influence on our well-being. With integrity, we are able to enjoy healthy relationships, avoid conflicts that tear us apart and give ourselves power in difficult situations. However when this foundational element of life becomes weakened, the world around us becomes more chaotic with scandals, corruption and mistrust being just some examples.

“Moral reminders examples” is a term that describes the things we do and say to make sure that our actions are always in line with what we believe. Read more in detail here: moral reminders examples.

Vintage golfer on green looking at hole bale foreground.

We addressed how two things impact our choices to behave dishonestly in the first piece of this four-part series on what undermines our integrity and how we might enhance it. 1) a desire for a monetary or material reward, but also for pleasure or renown, and 2) a want to be able to continue to consider ourselves as decent people. “Essentially, we cheat up to the degree that permits us to keep our self-image as relatively honest persons,” says psychology professor Dan Ariely.

Our propensity to excuse our immoral and selfish actions as not so awful determines how we choose to balance these opposing goals. The more you can explain your immoral activity, the blurrier the boundary between right and wrong becomes, and the broader your “fudge factor” margin – the amount of immoral behavior you can engage in without feeling bad – grows.

Last time, we discussed how even a little initial step down a dishonest road may trigger a cycle of justification and further dishonest conduct, leading you away from your beliefs and into more significant wrongdoings. But, when you do take that initial step, what considerations come into play? What keeps you continuing down that dark road after you’ve started?

Today, we’ll look at one of the most important variables that contributes to our capacity to explain a dishonest conduct, as well as how to oppose it in order to keep our integrity.

The Distinction Between the Act and the Result

The psychological distance between the act and its effects is one of these key impacts. The more we are separated from how an immoral action impacts others and from having to consider the reality of what we’re doing, the simpler it is to make the decision without feeling guilty.

Ariely carried out a number of tests that graphically demonstrate this idea in action.

He began by doing a non-scientific experiment in numerous college dorms. He put a six-pack of Coke in the shared fridge of several of the dormitories. He placed a dish with six $1 notes in other dorm fridges. Despite the fact that the Cokes and dollars were roughly equal in value, all of the beverages had vanished within 72 hours, but none of the dollar notes had been touched. The children could have simply obtained a greenback and utilized it to purchase a Coke from a nearby vending machine. They didn’t, though. Why? Because taking a dollar, which is money in its purest form, seems like theft, but taking a Coke, which is a step away from money, feels more acceptable. Many individuals wouldn’t hesitate to take a ream of paper from work, but wouldn’t conceive of removing $3.50 from the office’s petty cash box, according to Ariely.

Ariely wanted to explore whether the same thing would happen in a more controlled atmosphere after this haphazard attempt. So he went back to the matrix exam we spoke about before. That exam, if you recall, required participants to solve as many mathematical matrices as possible in five minutes while being compensated for each successful answer. At the cheating condition, participants double-checked their answers, destroyed their worksheets in the back of the room, and then informed the experimenter how many right answers they had in order to get the promised monetary payment (since the experimenter had not checked the worksheet themselves, the participant could claim to have solved as many matrices as they wanted). Ariely changed things up this time by having the researcher give the subjects plastic tokens instead of money, which they subsequently exchanged for cash in the next room. What occurred when this minor step stood between the chance to lie and receiving the money right away? By a factor of two, the participants cheated twice as often.


Ariely interviewed hundreds of golfers in another research, asking them to envision a circumstance in which relocating the ball (which is against the rules of the game) would provide them an edge. He asked them to forecast how frequently the typical golfer would touch the ball with his club, kick it with his foot, or pick it up with his hand. The typical golfer, according to the poll respondents, would use his club more than twice as frequently as his hand (with the foot falling in the middle). Even if the way the ball is moved has no influence on whether it is cheating or not, tapping it with your club seems less dishonest because you aren’t making direct contact with it — you are distanced from what you’re actually doing. It’s simpler for the golfer to persuade himself that it occurred by accident, enabling him to dismiss the incident as minor and maintain his reputation as a trustworthy person. If the golfer grabbed the ball directly with his hand, however, there would be “no way to overlook the purposefulness and intentionality of the act,” according to Ariely.

How to Overcome Distinction and Maintain Your Integrity

The larger the psychological distance between our deception and its effects, the simpler it is to justify our deception as morally and ethically acceptable. The more our capacity to reason, the wider our fudge factor cushion becomes. As a result, removing the stages – even if only in our heads – between our actions and the reality of what we’re doing and how it impacts others is critical to strengthening and preserving our integrity.

Because we’re dealing with a psychological issue, this might be a difficult problem to solve. We must first persuade our minds to see the significance of what is occurring. We can’t attempt to eliminate our dishonest behaviors from our life if we don’t cognitively define them as bad in the first place. Rather than ignoring the issue (don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing! ), we must endeavor to increase our awareness of the implications of our actions.

Cultivating this understanding essentially boils down to mentally peeling back the layers between something and its worth or impact on others. Imagine instead of removing printer ink from work, you’re taking $30 from your boss’s desk drawer. If you can’t envision yourself stealing money, know that stealing ink isn’t much different.

Consider this scenario: you get paid $15 per hour for your labor, but you waste an hour at work. You’ve basically taken $15 from your boss. Of course, browsing the internet doesn’t seem like stealing, but it’s no different from snatching a $15 item from a store and without paying for it.

Another useful addition to this kind of mental exercise is to envision the person who your action would have the biggest impact on (maybe a loved one or someone who looks up to you) being by your side while you performed it. Would you still take the ink or sneak a sleep if your supervisor was standing right next to you? The desire to conceal anything is a definite evidence that it is morally dubious. Integrity, as the saying goes, is what you do when no one is looking.


Of course, if you work for a large, faceless organization, it might be difficult to trace your activities back to the people who will be affected the most. Dishonesty and rationalization become immeasurably simpler in such situations, since the distance between your acts and their repercussions might seem large and their impact minor. However, the basis of integrity is that any action, no matter how little, is immoral — taking ten dollars from a wealthy guy is no more acceptable than stealing ten dollars from a poor man. It makes no difference that the former would not “experience” it in the same way that the later would. Theft is stealing.

If you don’t enjoy your work or the person you’re dealing with, it’s also lot simpler to manufacture reasons for your dishonesty. People were compensated $4 by either a neutral researcher (the control condition) or one who was disrespectful to them while providing the payment in another experiment done by Ariely. In the control group, 45 percent of participants returned the additional money (pretty sobering that more than half of people kept it). However, just 14% of those who interacted with the nasty experimenter returned the money. They justified retaining the additional change as payback for the experimenter’s poor conduct, claiming that he didn’t deserve the money and/or that it repaid them for being mistreated. This kind of thinking might be shown in someone who steals from work because they believe they are underpaid. Perhaps your ex-girlfriend was a jerk to you during the breakup, so you lie and claim you haven’t seen a beloved necklace when she asks whether it’s still at your house. Maybe you cheat on your wife because you think she’s too cold and doesn’t have enough sex with you. When you feel owed anything or have been mistreated, it’s simple to rationalize being dishonest. You may justify your actions by claiming that you’re only balancing the scales, but do two wrongs constitute a right?

Online is one area where we must be extremely careful in terms of enhancing our awareness of our behaviors. Everything we do in cyberspace might seem hazy and abstract. We often forget there’s an actual human person sitting behind the screen you’re typing to when communicating with friends, and even more so when communicating with anonymous strangers; we often forget there’s an actual human being sitting behind the screen you’re typing to. So, once again, seeing yourself performing what you’re doing online in a more direct manner will assist. If you performed the same thing in the real world, would you be able to defend your online behavior? When you’re speaking through instant messaging, flirting with someone other than your wife could seem acceptable… But how would you feel if you said the same things to a complete stranger at a bar? What if your wife was right there with you? It may seem innocuous to hurl hatred and caustic remarks at someone on an online forum, but can you picture saying the same things to their face? Saying things online that you would never say in person is a failing of the completeness and consistency that a man of integrity is expected to have.



We must constantly keep in mind that we’re all specialists at rationalizing dishonest conduct when it benefits our personal interests. And the greater the distance between an unethical act and its repercussions, the simpler it is to come up with these justifications. We’re so good at wrapping our deceptions in the garb of acceptability that we don’t always recognize them for what they are, and we’ll battle tooth and nail to preserve our reasons.

As a result, leading a life of integrity requires honest and serious self-examination and self-awareness. What exactly are your genuine reasons and goals? What will your activities have as a result, and who will they affect? It’s not simple to improve your mental game and develop this level of awareness. It entails paying attention to that nagging voice in your head that says, “Wait a minute, this isn’t quite right.” Instead of ignoring it, take a small notepad and write down what the voice says. Perhaps having it written down makes it more tangible and closes the gap between action and result. Alternatively, try teaming up with a friend or significant other who you can contact when you’re feeling guilty over anything. It becomes more real when you say it out loud to someone else.

The first step in becoming a man of tremendous integrity is to win the mental fight. You haven’t totally won yet, and you probably never will, but you are making progress by refusing to allow even the tiniest wrongdoing be excused away.

“A idea becomes a word; a word becomes an action; a deed becomes a habit; and a habit becomes a character.” So keep a close eye on the mind and its methods.”

Juan Mascaro (Juan Mascaro)

Read the Complete Series

Part I: Why Do Small Decisions Matter? Part III: How to Prevent Immorality from Spreading Part IV: Moral Reminders’ Influence

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve for cutting the psychological gap between acts and outcomes when there are several layers?

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve for cutting the psychological gap between acts and outcomes when there are several layers?


Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves



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